2014 Stanford Delegation

2014 Stanford Delegation
Stanford Delegation in the UCA Chapel

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Politics, Economics and the Mangrove Forests of the Bajo Lempa

By Ross Thornburn

During our time in Amando Lopez, we had the opportunity to gain a first-hand perspective on the lives of those living in cooperative communities in the Bajo Lempa and develop a greater understanding of issues in the region. On Wednesday, March 26th, we travelled the short distance from the homes of our host families to another cooperative community on the coast: La Tirana. Our morning began by taking a short journey in canoes through the waters of the mangrove forest. The saline waters of the mangroves allow for a particularly diverse marine ecosystem in the region, designated by UNESCO as a Biosphere reserve and RAMSAR site, a wetland of international importance. Despite these international designations, local communities are concerned that these will not provide protection from overdevelopment, but simply help market the location for tourism projects. Overdevelopment from tourism is arguably the biggest threat to the survival of this incredible ecosystem, with international investment projects that look set overwhelm large areas of the forest. Our guide from La Tirana explained his fears that the Millennium Challenge Corporation grant of $284 million would pave the way for massive scale hotels, resorts and infrastructure projects. Additionally, he explained that the Vice President Elect of the FMLN had purchased large areas of waterfront public land, prime for development along the coast. Upon hearing this, I was quite shocked at the possibility of politicians setting a policy agenda that would allow them to reap massive personal gains at the expense of natural resources and the Salvadorian people. This level of political corruption would also set a disconcerting precedent for all areas of domestic policy in the upcoming term of the FMLN party. While eco-tourism projects have the potential to help develop the nation’s economy and lift thousands out of poverty, they must be implemented in an appropriate manner that meets the demands of the Salvadorian people, as opposed to a small number of politicians.

After our short trip through the waters of the forest, we took a journey through the trees towards the beach at the edge of the forest. After some difficulty making our way through the trees, we finally reached the Pacific Ocean and the eerie sight of rows of decaying mangrove trees at the waterfront. We soon learned that tourism does not represent the only threat to the mangroves; climate change and natural disasters have also caused massive habitat destruction in recent years. In particular, hurricanes Stan and Mitch caused significant flooding in the region, destabilizing the balance of fresh and salt water in the forest and leading to the death of flora and fauna. As we made our way along the beach, I was struck by the very real threat presented to the communities of La Tirana who depend on the mangroves for their entire livelihoods, including providing their families with nutrition and shelter. It seems clear that El Salvador faces a very real trade-off in balancing the need for tourism to spur economic growth and protecting the communities that currently depend on the mangrove forests. While the Millennium Challenge Corporation will bring much needed infrastructure and development to the region, it is essential that the Salvadorian government engages with the Salvadorian people in a transparent, democratic process that takes into account all of the relevant factors in the debate. This overwhelming challenge will face these communities, the people and policymakers of El Salvador for many years to come, yet our group remains optimistic that an optimal solution that promotes economic growth and benefits the local population is possible. Reflecting on the political issues we encountered during the course of our travels, I realized that the issues facing policymakers El Salvador are similar to those facing many developing nations in attempting to develop their economy in an ethical manner, while protecting the interests of their domestic constituents.


By Ismael Menjivar

On the morning of our last day in El Salvador, we met with someone who led an informative discussion on foreign affairs in El Salvador, which, for many members, reinforced different beliefs.

What it reinforced for me was that poverty really is a structural problem. It seems like a lot of the problems that we saw in the local communities we visited were caused by a lack of representation in the decisions to sell off their lands, or start a project that impacted the communities. In some instances, members of the communities were simply manipulated, scammed into thinking they would reap the benefits of some project, but in the end they see none. The latter is an example of structural problems in education, where the system in place doesn't allow for some campesinos to acquire training in economic or legal affairs that would help them manage their assets.

There is a lack of resources in the areas we visited, and the holes in the political system in place keep the community councils from pushing policies in the interests of many marginalized members. The Salvadoran government has a political structure that has been manipulated by foreign interests for several years and we see this even today, when the country of El Salvador recognizes the winner of an election only after the approval of the US Ambassador. This structure, and perhaps the interests of a few rotten people, has failed to establish communication that keeps development in the hands of those that know what is best in certain regions.

In this imperfect system, I am reminded of the idea that drives the members of the base community in Segundo Montes, the belief in solidaridad. From the moment we arrived, we were thanked heavily for our solidarity with their efforts. They recognized the past martyrs and each present member the day we were there as being part of the solidarity. We even sang a song titled "Solidaridad". During a reflection on the biblical passage of the day, an elderly woman compared the relationship between Jesus and the Samaritan woman to the relationship the base community had with others that might not hold the same beliefs. She said that, like the Samaritan woman, many find it hard to see eye to eye with people from a different community, and, as a result, they turn away from them and create a divide between them. Her point was that such a divide should not exist between the base communities and nonmembers. She rallied for them to try to coexist with others, not in spite, but in solidarity.

As Adam Perelman mentioned below me, solidarity is "much simpler in theory than in practice", but that should not keep communities in El Salvador from seeking this solidarity and striving towards it each day. Divisions are seen all around the country. The homicides rate between the rival gangs, MS and 18th Street, are rising after a failed truce. Flags of the opposing political parties, ARENA and FMLN, can be seen everywhere, but only a small number of Salvadoran flags will wave their blue and white. Even the campo we stayed in shook a little, when youth members questioned why only ex-guerilla fighters were being interviewed for the historical memory project and we worried it might form some sort of division within the community.

In various ways, the civil war continues in El Salvador, keeping different groups from finding common ground to simultaneously further their interests. The fight for solidarity is a tough one, but we've seen successes in these local communities in rural areas. These tiny communities are doing their part to mend the relationships harmed by foul interests and I was glad to see their solidarity in the works.

On our last day together, Jose Acosta shared a story about a bird who tried putting out the flames of a forest on his own when the rest of the animals had fled. He was not successful, but had the other animals helped him, it may have been a different story. The same goes for these communities. I'm hopeful that with the solidarity of other communities, assemblies, and organizations, we will see a different story.